How to Fix the Airline Industry, According to Flight Attendants
It was a regular Monday morning at JFK. I sat in Terminal 4 (my most favorite of terminals; thank you, Shake Shack) at 7:45am waiting for my Delta flight to Cancun to board. Sun was shining, plane was at the gate. All was looking good. Then: a delay. All right, nothing unusual yet. Then the Delta flight next to mine was delayed. And the one next to that.
A slow frenzy built, a bass-level hum. A sea of smartphones lit up the gate area with buzzy Twitter feeds. Passengers freaked as the truth came out: Every Delta Air Lines flight in the world was grounded because of a computer outage. Hundreds of thousands of travelers were stranded. This was August 8, 2016, and it came to be unaffectionately known in the Twittersphere as #DeltaDown.
People were pissed. I watched as they took out their frustrations on none other than the Delta flight attendants, who, believe it or not, had nothing to do with this tech meltdown. Yet their job was to keep smiling through the maelstrom. They weren’t even on the clock; flight attendants only get paid when everyone’s in the air. When we finally did take off, passengers demanded free drinks and food. And the flight attendants graciously tried to accommodate, all the while fending off snide remarks.
"There is a strong disconnect between what airlines offer and what the guest wants."
This, to me, is the lot of the humble flight attendant. They’re the only people you meet in the entire airline experience who unfailingly do their best to fix whatever’s wrong. They help you feel comfortable while also nudging you to comply with federal regulations. They are, more than anyone, the airline employees who feel the pain points when the industry scrapes against the customers. Then they actually have to address any friction in real time.
So what would they do to fix the larger situation -- the frustrations we all felt when a record 800 million people crammed onto planes in the US last year? We talked to several flight attendants from four domestic carriers to get their proposals for tweaking (overhauling?) the airline industry to make the experience less... turbulent.
Fix No. 1: Airlines should let you change your flight more easily -- and cheaply
Changing or canceling fights is the reason Xanax exists. Try to make a change, and you face extended hold times, automated phone system loops, barely audible overseas calls, and, when you finally do reach a human, an exorbitant fee for the slightest tweak to a flight itinerary. If you need to cancel your flight entirely and you were Devil-may-care enough to skip travel insurance, you’re just sunk.
Fees for changes and cancellations average around $200, and it adds up: Airlines in 2014 collected nearly $3 billion in reservation change fees. Ostensibly, the change fee is supposed to cover the airline in the event they have to cancel a flight. But in reality, it’s a bald cash-grab -- air travel’s equivalent of surge pricing -- and often the change fee exceeds the ticket price, especially on domestic flights.
Flight attendants would love if you were allowed to make changes on the fly, so to speak. Passengers would be in better moods, less rushed, and less stressed about having been shaken down just because life threw them some kind of curve.
“Unfortunately, the bottom line is all that matters to corporate America,” says an American Airlines flight attendant. “Oil prices are low, but airfares are continually high and rising. Allow passengers to make changes to their itinerary without the ridiculously high change fees. It’s not necessary.”
Fix No. 2: Airlines should space out the seats.
People often say that travel is a luxury, as they sit there in their Caribbean-colored infinity pool, umbrella drink in their tired, 9-to-5, keyboard-curled hand. But actually getting from point A to Banana daiquiri is increasingly a slog.
Even on international trips, airlines are favoring planes such as 737s, because they’re smaller and cheaper to operate than luxury liners. Low costs in turn feed ticket sales. High demand for a small space means airlines have every excuse to shrink the space between seats. When you’re sitting in a space 17 inches wide, with only 28 inches of pitch for each seat, passengers start to stink like sardines.
“Stop packing in the airplanes,” says an American Airlines flight attendant. “It doesn’t make traveling pleasant, and one day, someone IS going to snap.”
A second American flight attendant agrees. “So much in the airline industry needs improvement,” he says. “A good start would be to give passengers more space aboard the aircraft. I know like any other company we are in business to make more, and a higher yield helps that, but more comfort would go a long way.”
“There is a strong disconnect between what airlines offer and what the guest wants,” says a JetBlue flight attendant. “It would be great to remind people that we understand that travel is still a luxury. Basic economy has its purpose, but we need to re-evaluate what would make guests comfortable.”
Fix No. 3: Flight attendants should get more shut-eye between shifts
Glamorous is not a word flight attendants would use to describe their careers. Yes, they are passionate about travel and flying, but not because it’s easy to do so. And just because they look good doing it doesn’t mean it’s not difficult AF.
Most flight attendants are working 12-hour shifts, and the occasional 14-hour shift, especially on international flights. They generally spend about 65 to 90 hours in the air per month. Starting salaries begin around $16,000 and average around $37,000.
Between shifts, the FAA requires flight attendants to get at least 8 1/2 hours of rest, or time in their hotel room, before hopping back on a plane to lather, rinse, repeat. In my conversations with flight attendants, they didn’t complain about the modest pay. Rather, they said they’d be able to do their jobs better if they had more downtime between flights.
“If I could change anything, it would be our required rest time,” says a Delta Air Lines flight attendant. “By the time you eat, shower, and settle down for bed, you’re lucky if you get six hours of shut eye. More zzz’s, please!”
"Your crew is NOT the high-level management. We only get paid when the plane is moving."
Fix No. 4: Airports have to manage the sheer flood of people flying
This one is fundamentally tougher to change. Travel has become more accessible than ever, which is wonderful for so many reasons: the world gets to bridge cultures and sing "Kumbaya" and all that, while you get $350 flights to Maui.
But with more people flying comes... more people flying. And it’s simply a truism that with more people swamping airports, everyone’s experience gets more fraught.
“Overpopulation gives us more traffic, and more crowds mean more lines, which means more irritated people,” says a Virgin America flight attendant. “When the airport is empty and the flights are 50% full, I usually never have a problem with any passenger. If the passenger had to sit in traffic to get to the airport, dealt with huge lines at the ticket counter and TSA, and barely make it to their plane, we [flight attendants] are the ones who bear the brunt.”
This is one where you can do your part, dear traveler. Give yourself every opportunity to be an unstressed, courteous traveler. Sign up for TSA Precheck, for starters, and then brush up on these unwritten rules of the air.
Fix No. 5: And, yes, passengers need to be more civil
Dreaming of a better airline industry shouldn’t only fall to flight attendants talking to writers. Anyone who steps onto a plane has a role to play. Flight attendants say the worst is passengers’ lack of basic decency. An American Airlines flight attendant enumerates: “Feet on the bulkhead, walking around barefooted to the restroom, clipping their toenails without concern for other passengers, changing baby diapers on the tray tables, coughing and not covering their mouths, letting their darling children treat the airplane like a romper room... the list goes on.”
Says a Delta flight attendant: “It’s hard to bite my tongue and continue to be nice and respectful when a passenger isn’t respecting me. Please take your earbuds out when I’m speaking to you. It gets a little old when I have to repeat our snack choices three times.”
“Your crew is NOT the high-level management,” says a JetBlue flight attendant. “We are an autonomous work force doing our best to follow the rules we have to follow AND to keep you safe at the same time. We only get paid when the plane is moving. We aren’t paid during boarding or during a delay. We want to get moving just as much as you do.”
This, it seems, is the quickest fix available to all of us who fly. Be calm, be patient -- maybe even smile. In fact, if you’re trying to have the smoothest possible flight, you could do worse than to act like a flight attendant.